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History of Our Riverfront

There is historic significance in re-establishing downtown connectivity through a new Memorial Drive.

For the first 200 years since it's founding in 1764, St. Louis was well connected to its riverfront birthplace. The Mississippi River was the front door to St. Louis and its center of commerce. As commerce moved west though, St. Louis turned its back on the historic riverfront and began to fall into decline. In the second quarter or the 20th century, there was a call for change. Civic leaders expressed a desire to renew the riverfront and once again be able to show pride in the city's front door. However, before this renewal was complete, modern era planning, which focused on the automobile, managed to sever St. Louis' historic connection to its place of inception. Below is a brief history of the St. Louis riverfront and how we came to be cut off from it.

The Village of St. Louis is founded by Pierre Laclede and Auguste Chouteau. Within a very short time St. Louis became one of the largest villages in the mid-Mississippi valley.

President Thomas Jefferson completes the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from the French, a total of 828,800 square miles, for $15 million. The Federal government quickly began to encourage westward expansion and settlement. St. Louis became the logical starting point for emigrants heading west. By the 1830s, St. Louis had become the "Gateway to the West."

Less than 100 years after its founding, the central riverfront is a bustling hub of commercial activity and the center of the growing metropolis. The levee is the largest inland port serving as the exchange point between the raw materials of the west and manufactured goods from the east and Europe.

The Eads Bridge is completed. In the last quarter of the 19th century, railroads become the preferred method of shipping, Chicago surpasses St. Louis as the hub of transcontinental trade and riverboat traffic declines, along with the image of the riverfront among St. Louisans.

Luther Ely Smith meets with civic and business leaders in Mayor Dickmann's office. A committee is formed to work for the establishment of a federal memorial to commemorate the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Two years later, president Roosevelt signs an executive order authorizing the acquisition of the central riverfront to develop the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.

Demolition begins for the clearance of 40 blocks of the central riverfront from the Eads Bridge to Poplar Street and from the Wharf Street to Third Street. Upon completion of demolition in 1942 World War II shifts priorities away from development of the JNEM.

Eero Saarinen, relatively unknown as an architect at the time, is chosen by secret ballot from 172 entrants in the competition to design the JNEM. Saarinen's stunning design featuring a soaring stainless steel arch, landscaped grounds, an above ground museum, restaurants, and other features wins unanimous approval from the seven member jury. Saarinen's plan shows the memorial site well connected to the existing street grid of the city. The Interstate is shown completely buried from Elm Street (between Clark and Walnut) north. Poplar, Elm, Walnut, Market, Chestnut, Olive, Locust, Vine and Washington all connect with the memorial site at a boulevard along the western boundary.

Two hundred years after the founding of St. Louis, construction of the great monument to westward expansion progresses. At the same time, earlier plans to bury Interstate 70 are scrapped and construction begins on a configuration of trenched and elevated highway lanes. The result closes the front door of St. Louis before the great new monument is even completed. The city's street grid is cut off from the memorial site by the interstate between Washington and Chestnut as well as everything south of Walnut. North of Washington Avenue the elevated lanes sever the street grid from historic Laclede's Landing.

The Gateway Arch is completed. In the following year the Memorial is designated a National Historic Landmark. The Dan Kiley designed landscape would not be finished until 1982, nearly two decades after construction began on the Arch.

The St. Louis Chapter of the American Institute of Architects holds a design charrette to explore ways to improve downtown connections across Memorial Drive and I-70.

Mayor Francis Slay and the Danforth Foundation announce a large plan to renew the St. Louis riverfront at the Memorial, including new attractions and the "lid" project. The plan is dropped after the Army Corps of Engineers rejects some of the planned riverfront amenities.

National Park Service holds hearings, prepares draft alternatives and approves a new General Management Plan for the JNEM. The CityArchRiver2015 Foundation and the National Park Service announce the design competition.

2010 & Beyond
Today St. Louis stands at a historic opportunity to reconnect to its historic riverfront from which it has been cut off for the last 45 years. We can reopen our front door and reconnect St. Louis to the communities of the central riverfront, our centerpiece jewel, the Arch and the Mississippi Riverfront.

Copyright © 2010 City to River